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IFF: The Festival Season 2019

Weather, cancellations, artist fees and the ever-earlier festival booking window took centre stage at the first panel of the International Festival Forum 2019

By Jon Chapple on 25 Sep 2019

L–R: Lowe, Sjölund, Ziolkowski, Beedell-Tuck, Thanscheidt, Warby, Festival Season 2019

L–R: Lowe, Sjölund, Ziolkowski, Beedell-Tuck, Thanscheidt, Warby


The weather, cancellations, artist fees (of course) and the ever-earlier festival booking window were among the topics tackled by the panellists of the Festival Season 2019, the latest edition of IFF’s traditional opening session.

Hosted by UTA’s Greg Lowe, the session welcomed Anna Sjölund of Live Nation Sweden, Mikolaj Ziolkowski of Poland’s Open’er Festival, Solo agent Charly Beedell-Tuck, FKP Scorpio’s Stephan Thanscheidt and WME’s Russell Warby for a post-festival season round-up of the key issues, successes, trials and tribulations of 2019.

FKP MD Thanscheidt, whose festivals include Hurricane and Southside (Germany), Provinssi (Finland), Gården (Sweden) and Best Kept Secret (Netherlands), joked that it’s “the first time in four or five years that I’m not sat here crying and complaining about the weather!” With largely sunny and dry conditions, for FKP it was, finally a “normal season,” he said.

“I have to say a little bit the opposite,” said Ziolkowski. “It was an okay year, but worse than 2018. Yourope [the European Festival Association] did their first survey about this year and it [found the market] was slightly down. For us, it was a good year – a regular year, but not as great as 2018. We had two festivals sold out, one was OK.

“I’d say it was more difficult to book artists in 2019 – and fewer festivals sold out and less tickets were sold.”

Sjölund said Live Nation Sweden had a “fantastic year”, with the successful launch of Lollapalooza Stockholm, while WME’s Warby commented that it “seemed this year that all audiences were well served. Whether it was the pop and urban acts, or AOR – there was an audience for all kinds of stuff.

“I’d say it was more difficult to book artists in 2019”

“Sometimes the booking can be quite linear, with people only thinking about what the biggest trend is, but I don’t think that wasn’t the case this year. I think Lollapalooza [Stockholm] is a good example – they had a good balance there.”

“The audiences are there in different markets,” he added, “and they came out in great numbers.”

Asked by Lowe whether the festival sector is at risk of overexposure, Ziolkowski compared festivals to the major labels in the previous decade. “We’re in a really good place, but the big labels thought the same previously,” he explained. “Festivals are working on really small margins, really small profits, so when artist fees, production, supplier costs, everything is rising, it’s more difficult to make a profit, and that will affect the market.”

Festivals are under increased pressure to “deliver an experience”, added Sjölund, “and that costs money. You can’t have a festival where the audience is not happy – where they’re standing in line for the toilets, for food, for beer – so you’ve got to spend the money to make experience enjoyable.”

“To say this very clearly: In future, festivals will have problem if there’s no magic money coming from anywhere else,” said Thanscheidt. “Festivals are hard to break [even on] nowadays. Fees for headliners are not reasonable: just because someone, somewhere, will pay it – and they always will – doesn’t mean it’s reasonable.

“We’re steering into a dead-end street. We can’t raise ticket prices any more or we lose people.”

Festivals are under increased pressure to “deliver an experience”, said Sjölund, “and that costs money”

“We have to treat festivals like a milch cow,” added Ziolkowski. “It’s in all our interests to keep it healthy and not kill it.

“We can increase costs sometimes, we can increase the ticket price a bit, but we can’t have 100% higher artist fees year on year.”

Talk then turned to cancellations, with Sjölund revealing that Live Nation “had a shit year” when it came to artists pulling out: Chance the Rapper, cancelled the third day of Lollapalooza, for example, and the promoter had 12 cancellations, including headliner Cardi B, at Way Out West.

“My acts don’t cancel without good reason,” joked Warby, who added that it has to be a “serious injury”, alluding to Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl’s broken leg, for one of his acts to pull out.

“We’ve all heard those stories or had some experience with that, when an artist is meant to be on site and they’re still at the hotel but refusing to leave,” he continued. “You’re aware of it, so you’ve got to be ahead of it and prepare for it.

“Especially with urban artists, who don’t have trucks full of equipment, things will go wrong. When you have an artist playing a late-night slot in Spain and then performing in Finland the next day you might have a problem, so you’ve got to take that into account when routing a tour.”

“Come Christmas it’s nice to be pretty much done”

With the booking window getting earlier every year, Lowe asked panellists about the challenges involved in working in what is effectively a year-round festival season.

“It’s become really difficult, both for festivals and agents,” said Ziolkowski. “Even artists who are a 30,000 to 50,000 [capacity] level now want offers in April.”

He added that live music could perhaps take inspiration from football, “where they have a transfer window. Once that’s over, it’s done – thank you very much until next year. They do it, so it is possible!”

Conversely, Beedell-Tuck and Sjölund said they welcome the earlier booking window. “The nature of the role has changed as the year just becomes one long festival,” said Beedell-Tuck. “The pressure from management to get the year wrapped up has increased, but, like Anna, I feel good about that – from a human perspective it can be overwhelming, but come Christmas it’s nice to be pretty much done, to be honest.”

“It used to be that festivals were looking headliners come March or April [the same year],” added Warby. “That’s never going to happen again.

“It’s driven by US festivals like Coachella, who announce first week of January. They have a lot more dollars, they can afford to pay artists more, and you’re going to find people are already booked in your windows in the US. So if you want to stand a chance you need to get in early.”

The International Festival Forum takes place in Camden, north London, from 24–26 September, with festival and agency delegates from 40 markets represented.

 


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